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February 5, 2009

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The Chestnut Hill Local
8434 Germantown Ave.
Phila. PA 19118
Ph: 215-248-8800
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2009© Chestnut Hill Local
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Groundhog Day again?!

Groundhog Day

In the classic film Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors — played by Bill Murray — wakes up every morning at 6 a.m. to discover that it is still Feb. 2, Groundhog Day.

As Murray is forced to relive Feb. 2 every day, he sinks further and further into depression and depravity. He drinks, fights, steals and frequently tries to kill himself. In one scene he kidnaps Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) and, with the local police in hot pursuit, drives off a cliff. The car, with Murray and groundhog inside, explodes in a terrific ball of steel and fire. (Did I mention this is a comedy?)

But the next day, Murray wakes up and it is 6 a.m. on Feb. 2 again. No matter what he does, he is forced to relive that day until he finally decides to start doing the “right thing” and finds himself, finally, on the morning of Feb. 3 in the arms of Rita (Andie MacDowell) with the promise of a better life ahead.

One doesn’t have to put many years in with the Local to feel like Bill Murray. Déjà vu is woven firmly into this paper’s 50-year history. It’s a pattern of recurring conflict and guerilla warfare(of free versus controlled press, of business versus public interests) — a battle that never seems to be resolved, only postponed until the players can realign and take another crack at the struggle.

In the last 10 years, the Local has been swept up in near life-ending scenarios with alarming frequency. In 2005, following the resignation of former editor James Sturdivant, it seemed the paper had finally really plunged off a cliff — a fatal conflagration from which it would never recover.

The Local returned to some semblance of normalcy, but little progress was made. It wasn’t a new day at all, we were back on the morning of the day before, waiting to live again through the same problems, fight the same fights and have the same debates.

Though the Chestnut Hill Community Association directors who believed I should have been fired last month will argue that this is not a freedom of the press issue — they don’t tell me what to write but, instead, work to diminish my professionalism with charges of bias, mismanagement and legally risky behavior — it is the content of this paper that is at issue.

Some believe that the paper is too eager to run criticism of the CHCA and not careful enough at verifying allegations made by those who criticize. Others believe that the Local’s coverage of news is bad for business. Forget about whether something is true or not, or whether a question is worth asking, whether a charge is worthy of being leveled by an opinion writer. Those who would like me gone want this paper to be different. They want it to swerve away from news and controversy and act only as cheerleader or booster. They do not want the paper to be a vehicle for debate or criticism.

That said, it is the right of those who’d like this paper to be free of critical news and debate to try to change it. If the board of the CHCA decides to change the bylaws to make the Local a newsletter of the association, and its membership approves, then the fight will be over. It would be a better strategy than the usual maneuvers in private executive sessions (Besides, every time they get rid of one editor for another, those who wanted the paper to be “different” find themselves, again, at the beginning of another long battle — déjà vu all over again).

Fortunately (and on this point I’ll admit personal bias) only 12 directors out of 45 found the direction of the paper to be so distasteful that they thought a change was needed.

Still, little has been resolved. Those who want the paper to change will be back (many haven’t left). It’s hard to imagine how the Local will ever break this pattern. Maybe it will always be 6 a.m. on Feb. 2 at the Local.

Pete Mazzaccaro

 

 

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